On July 20, 2018, in “The Misappropriation of Madison and Montpelier,” I wrote that Progressivism had begun a transmogrification of American history by installing new exhibits at Montpelier that described James Madison primarily as slaveholder, suggested that slavery was rooted and protected in the U. S. Constitution, and purported to illustrate how that legacy is manifested in America today. The new exhibits at Montpelier were entitled “The Mere Distinction of Colour.”
In July 2022, attention focused again on Montpelier, this time due to its support for the 1619 Project:
- In a July 16 article in the New York Post, Linge and Levine write that “the only in-depth material about the Constitution itself appears in a display that pushes the claim, championed by the controversial 1619 Project, that racism was the driving force behind the entire American political system.”
- In a July 29 article in Minding the Campus, Brenda Hafera of the Heritage Foundation describes Montpelier’s “ugly” role in such effort and shows that the woke history in the “Mere Distinction of Colour” was largely created by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
I agree that, in the battle for the future soul of America, the home of James Madison is now controlled by Progressive wokesters—who base their vision of equal outcomes and racial equity on the 1619 Project and a Constitution founded on slavery. But I argue herein that, most importantly, Montpelier’s detractors are now falsely converting James Madison himself into a supporter of that concept as the Father of our Constitution—a new and very deceptive message to the American public from his home. The organization directly responsible for this ideological recasting is the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Other Recent Articles
According to Linge and Levine of the New York Post, visitors to Montpelier report the following:
- “Dozens of interactive stations seek to draw a direct line between slavery, the Constitution, and the problems of America today.”
- “Hurricane Katrina flooding, the Ferguson riots, incarceration, and more all trace back to slavery, according to a 10-minute multi-screen video.”
- “A one-hour Critical Race Theory experience disguised as a tour.”
- “Another exhibit damns every one of the nation’s first 18 presidents—even those like John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, who never owned slaves—for having benefited from slavery in some way.”
Hafera’s piece at Minding the Campus provides numerous examples of where exhibits in “The Mere Distinction of Colour” were prepared by or for the SPLC, which also promotes teaching slavery in American public schools. I elaborated the dangerous potential role of SPLC in national racism in “Teaching American History: The Place of Slavery,” published on October 4, 2019.
SPLC’s rubric, noted by Hafera, establishes how slavery should be taught by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which was formed by the National Trust in 2017. SPLC’s work at Montpelier began in 2018.
What Happened at Montpelier?
Subsequent to 2018, the staff at Montpelier began urging the expansion of the story of slavery based on the success of “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” Staff cited surveys in which exhibit respondents had learned that “slavery had had a great deal of impact on the development of the United States.” Staff also advocated expanding the role of Montpelier to include “descendants of people enslaved by America’s founding presidents.”1
Montpelier is managed by a Board of Directors. In 2019, a Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC) of members representing former nearby Virginia plantations was formed, with discussions that it might eventually have parity with the Board. In May 2020, the Board refused to sign a joint statement in support of anti-racism protests after the death of George Floyd. The Board further resisted expanding Montpelier to endorse a national slavery narrative.2
James French, who had joined the Montpelier Board as an individual in 2019, also became MDC Chairman and told CBS News in Orange County, Virginia: “We, too, are the cofounders of this nation, and we would like this to be told.” French and his allies sought an even more extensive reinterpretation of American history and additional exhibits to draw a direct connection between Madison’s slaves and current events such as the George Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter movement.3
The situation at Montpelier came to a head in April 2022 with ongoing efforts of descendants of slaves to increase their influence and control of the Montpelier Board of Directors in order to “revamp Madison’s home into a museum that focused less on him and more so on slavery.”4
On April 28, 2022, the National Trust, which owns Montpelier and had sharply criticized the Board for failing to share power equally with the MDC, announced its support for the “esteemed slate of recommended nominees of the MDC.”
The Montpelier Board promptly adopted the National Trust position and was reconstituted as follows:
- The new Chairman was James French, the MDC Chairman.
- The new Vice Chairman was Stephanie Meeks, former National Trust CEO and President.
- A second new Vice Chairman was Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a civil rights scholar.
Other Board Members were named as follows:5
- Leslie Alexander, whose research appears in the 1619 Project
- Maureen Costello, executive director of the Center for Antiracist Education
- Rev. Cornell William Brooks, Harvard Professor and former NAACP Chief
- Soledad O’Brien, former CNN host and TV journalist
It’s clear that the National Trust has taken control of Montpelier and its agenda. As evidence of its influential involvement, the National Trust has published an article which explains that “The Mere Distinction of Colour” has broadened the Madisonian connection “to include a fledgling America, and the ways that slavery was embedded into our country’s government and Constitution without once being overtly named.” The article also states that Montpelier staff and the descendant community decided to “get involved in the ideology of slavery, which is really important with Madison because he was an idea person,” and that they “wanted to show the thoughts surrounding slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries [and] how the idea is protected within the Constitution.”
Montpelier Board Vice Chairman Hasan Kwame Jeffries and Member Maureen Costello have had extensive prior educational associations with the SPLC, which Hafera also notes.
Madison and Montpelier
On July 20, 2022, Montpelier issued a press release titled “Montpelier Corrects Numerous Media Falsehoods,” which accused the New York Post of focusing on slavery while ignoring the site’s coverage of Madison. This is Montpelier’s strategy—claiming continued traditional coverage of Madison through the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution and public tours about the Constitution (with no exhibit).
But this is specious. The Smith Center is used only periodically and largely by scholars and other professionals. And the constitutional tours are rarely sought relative to the highly advertised “Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibit, which is dominated by the theme of slavery.
Notably—and illustrating where it intends to take America—Montpelier has also issued a press release describing a new educational series that is currently being produced called the “Madison Moment.” A quote from that series shows how history is to be rewritten:
Madison was a central figure in the attempt to create a sustainable government for the union of the states, the push for stronger individual rights and the establishment of slavery as a national political force [emphasis added]. As a student of laws, history, and most importantly, human nature, James Madison’s observations provided a crucial guiding influence during the challenging, formative years of the American republic.
The above confirms the future role for Montpelier planned by the National Trust, particularly in support of the 1619 Project. We will be treated to their woke invention of what Madison did not think, but should have thought, about slavery in our new republic and its Constitution.
We can see why the National Trust, the SPLC, and our Progressive wokesters have selected Montpelier to strike at America’s jugular by purveying their new ideologically charged narrative about slavery at the founding. Cloaked in Montpelier’s cachet, they would distort the Madisonian record to achieve their biased purposes by enlisting him in their cause.
What are the founding beliefs that might be distorted? In my book, Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization, I provided the views of some of America’s leading historians and thinkers:6
- Historian Gordon S. Wood recognized the world-leading action of our Declaration of Independence in declaring that “all men are created equal,” which means that all have a common human nature, and which produced the gradual abolition of Northern American slavery, recognized by Madison.
- As philosopher Mortimer J. Adler (Great Books) reminded us, the Founders did not make “equality of condition” (economic) an element of the Constitution. They considered that the law and equal opportunity provide us with as much equality as justice requires.
- James Madison supported a Constitution consistent with the above principles and with the compromises between North and South necessary to form and begin a Union and nation named the United States of America, in which a virtuous people would decide the future.
- Historian Joseph Ellis also observed that “the founders opted for an evolutionary rather than revolutionary version of political and social change, preferring to delay delivery of the full promise of the American Revolution rather than risk implosion in the manner of the French Revolution. Although it is difficult for many modern-day critics to acknowledge the point, this deferral strategy, far from being a moral failure, was in fact a profound insight rooted in a realistic appraisal of how enduring political and social change best happens. But [the expectation that slavery would die a natural death] proved to be a massive miscalculation.”7
However, contemporary critics of Madison use him as an example of someone who rejected racial inequality in principle but refused to make the necessary changes to actually achieve equality. Historian Noah Feldman expressed this view of Madison in an opinion piece for the New York Times:
Madison is the founding father who can teach Americans the most about our present contradictions on race. Madison insisted that enslaved Africans were entitled to a right to liberty. Yet not only did he hold slaves on his plantation, but he also originated the notorious three-fifths compromise in the Constitution. … The tension between Madison’s aspirational beliefs and his highly constrained actions continues to be America’s own tension. Like Madison, contemporary United States society rejects racial inequality in principle. But also, like Madison, a majority of Americans…are ultimately unwilling or unable to make the costly changes that would be necessary to achieve equality in practice.
What to Do?
The developments at Montpelier represent another nail in the coffin of an America based on Western Civilization. Progressive wokesters have overtly seized the site and symbol to the American public of its historical founding and Constitution and are now able to directly replace that story with the falsehoods of the 1619 Project—including that our Constitution is based on slavery, deceptively presenting Madisonian mistruths.
For a start, I believe that the organizations involved at Montpelier and their agenda for America should be exposed, condemned, and repudiated by responsible history professionals and all organizations that still honor historical truth, the real American founding and Constitution, and the true legacy of James Madison.
But until that happens, I’m sure that the Marxist leaders of national factions and global competitor nations will continue to smile as we simply destroy ourselves from within.
1 Stephen P. Hanna, Derek K. Alderman, and Amy E. Potter, “Opinion: Changes at Montpelier work against repairing the wounds of slavery,” Washington Post, April 29, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/04/29/changes-montpelier-work-against-repairing-wounds-slavery/.
2 DeNeen L. Brown, “James Madison’s plantation vowed to share power with Black descendants. Then things blew up,” Washington Post, April 22, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2022/04/22/james-madison-montpelier-plantation-descendants/; Michael Levenson, “At Madison’s Montpelier, a Fight Over Power for Slaves’ Descendants,” New York Times April 22, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/22/us/montpelier-estate-board-enslaved.html.
3 John Fund, “Jefferson and Madison Homes Seized by “Woke” Detractors of the Founding Fathers,” National Review, July 17, 2022, https://www.nationalreview.com/2022/07/jefferson-and-madison-homes-seized-by-woke-detractors-of-the-founding-fathers/.
4 Cami Mondeaux, “James Madison downplayed in museum at own estate by left-wing billionaire,” Washington Examiner, July 16, 2022, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/james-madison-downplayed-montpelier-left-wing-billionaire.
5 Gregory S. Schneider, “In reversal, Montpelier appoints directors from descendents of the enslaved,” Washington Post, May 16, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/05/16/madison-montpelier-descendant-community-foundation-board/; Hilary Holladay, “National Trust tells Montpelier Board to seat nine MDC nominees immediately and without condition,” May 2, 2022, https://dailyprogress.com/community/orangenews/news/national-trust-tells-montpelier-board-to-seat-nine-mdc-nominees-immediately-and-without-condition/article_fcdde06c-ca8d-11ec-a860-978d57a6a221.html; “New Montpelier Board Acts Quickly to Resolve Crisis: Chooses New Board Leadership Appoints Interim President and CEO,” James Madison’s Montpelier, May 25, 2022, https://www.montpelier.org/learn/montpelier_statement_25may2022.
6 William H. Young, Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (Indianapolis: Xlibris, 2010), 332-3, 311, 329.
7 Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 18.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).